Lady Gaga is without a doubt one of the most iconic pop legends of our time. Having dominated the music scene and headlined Coachella, given one of the most talked-about Superbowl halftime shows in decades, and of course left a lasting legacy on the world in the infamous meat suit, what could possibly dare to stop her in her tracks? The answer is simple: fibromyalgia. View Post
After being diagnosed with a chronic illness halfway through my time at university, one of my biggest achievements to date has been continuing my studies, and graduating with a 2:1 BSc degree from a Russell Group institution in 2016. What I didn’t know at the time was that this was only the beginning of the battle; that the subsequent search for accessible employment opportunities would be even more difficult to navigate. View Post
I first met Erin Siobhan Hutching through my work with Scope, and obviously jumped at the opportunity to have a natter about inclusive theatre with her: the following post has been published with the permission of the Scope Stories team and The DH Ensemble. Enjoy, and let me know what you think!
Going to the theatre is an experience enjoyed and cherished by many families, particularly over Christmas and the New Year. However, like many other recreational activities, theatres and shows often fail to be wholly inclusive of disabled people. Although the accessibility of venues has now begun to increase, the content and suitability of individual productions for those with specific impairments continue to exclude multitudes of disabled people from enjoying these shows for themselves. View Post
I jumped at the chance to interview the theatre blogging legend that is West End Wilma; what with the upcoming Wilma Awards nominees just being announced and the inclusion of an accessibility award this year, there were a lot of topics about inclusive theatre that I was eager to discuss!
Hey Wilma, thanks for chatting with me today!
I absolutely love that The Wilma Awards have a category dedicated to accessibility this year. What encouraged you to take this step?
I think it’s a really important thing and so I’m trying to do anything I can do to raise awareness of the importance of the issue.
We know from disabled theatregoers that individual theatre venues and teams can massively vary in their accessibility. Are there any venues or staff teams that you personally know to be at the top of their game in terms of disabled access?
Places like The Arcola, Park Theatre and National Theatre all do a great job I think.
Many theatres today are wonderful at promoting relaxed performances and ensuring that their audiences are informed about specific aspects of the performance e.g. the use of strobe lighting beforehand. From your own work with audiences affected by autism, can you explain why this is so important?
As theatre-goers we like to moan about people who don’t behave properly at the theatre. Talking, not sitting still etc. And it can be annoying to have this happen, especially when tickets are so expensive. But what a lot of people don’t consider is that maybe they have an underlying issue that makes it difficult for them to stay still for long periods of time. I agree there is a way you should behave at the theatre but if we are going to stipulate these things then we should also ensure that there is at least one performance of every show that caters to people who may need a more relaxed environment. Because everyone should be able to experience the joy of theatre.
I really enjoyed your recent piece on the necessity of actors being able to perform eight shows a week. Applying this to aspiring disabled actors, do you think there’s currently enough support in place for performers with disabilities and long-term conditions to succeed in the competitive West End industry?
That’s a great question and I don’t think I know the answer. My point in that blog was that decades ago there was no such thing as an alternate performer and if you were cast in a role you were expected to do all eight shows a week. Now it is as though we have part time actors who only do some of the shows but they are still billed as the lead performer. I’m not really sure what support is available for disabled actors though but it’s certainly something I’ll look in to.
My own personal mission is to promote accessible theatre, not just for those with disabilities, but also for those with debilitating chronic illnesses, who are not often included in the conversation. If you could change one thing about current theatre practice to make it more accessible for this population, what would you do?
I don’t think it matters what disability you have, everyone deserves the opportunity to be able to go to the theatre and feel in a safe environment where they aren’t judged for what they do. There are certainly more variations on accessible shows popping up (Dementia friendly, Mother and baby shows etc) and so we are certainly moving in the right direction towards catering to all types of conditions.
Thank you so much for chatting with me today! Where can we find out more about you, and this year’s Wilma Awards?
Check out westendwilma.com for all the news on the awards. The nominees have just be announced and voting opens online on 1 September! There are a few tickets available for the ceremony if anyone wants to come along. They can be bought at delfontmackintosh.co.uk.
This was my first ever time conducting an interview on my blog, so I hope you guys enjoyed it! Accessible theatre is so important to me and although strides are being made, there’s still a long-way to go in ensuring theatre is inclusive for all. Do you have any thoughts on the current situation and how things could be improved? I’d love to hear your views!
Photo Credits: West End Wilma
If you enjoyed this post, you might like this one: How I Fund My Theatre Addiction!
[I wrote this piece for The Huffington Post’s new ‘EveryBody’ campaign; see the original post here!]
“What happened to you, then?”
There’s no ideal time to acquire a long-term chronic illness, but becoming disabled halfway through your undergraduate degree has to be up there in the Least Convenient Life Situations list. Adapting to the student experience whilst learning to live with a painful and debilitating neurological condition isn’t a walk in the park, especially when your illness is invisible. At times, looking like every other person around me was a blessing, but more often than not, it led to some really problematic encounters. Like others in my situation, I’ve experienced all the usual judgments: people telling me I don’t look ill, I’m too young to need a seat on the bus, I shouldn’t be so lazy… the list goes on. Sadly, I was prepared for these comments. Those with invisible conditions have been facing these attitudes for years.
What I wasn’t prepared for was facing similar situations once I became a wheelchair user. Accepting that I needed a mobility aid at the ripe old age of twenty was difficult, but I naively consoled myself with the thought that at least now, maybe people would take my physical health needs more seriously. What didn’t cross my mind at this time, however, was that the person sat in the wheelchair still didn’t look ‘ill enough’, to satisfy the curiosity of the general public. During my first trips out of the house with George (the wheelchair; you always have to name the wheelchair), I was hyper-aware of the people around me. I felt people’s gazes on me as they slowly looked me up and down as if trying to identify my ailment, and I felt their shock and disbelief as I crossed my legs and they realised that no, I wasn’t paralysed. The thing that really baffled them the most though, and continues to baffle people today, was when I stood up from my wheelchair to transfer to a seat. The impulse to make light of it and exclaim ‘I’m healed!!! It’s a miracle!!!’ tempts me every single time.
Finding humour in these kinds of instances is my coping mechanism, but often this gives rise to its own problems. I recall one situation where I was viewing flats with a letting agent and my parents. I’d stood and talked to the agent for a few moments without my wheelchair and without mentioning my disability, but then climbed in my wheelchair that my dad had brought around, ready to view a property. Afterwards, I found out that the letting agent had been utterly taken by surprise by the wheelchair ‘because I seemed so cheerful’. They couldn’t get their head around the fact I was silently suffering, because I talked and laughed and smiled like any other person.
Another time, my best friend and I were out shopping, and laughing our heads off about something or other as she wheeled me around a gift shop. The shop owner took this moment to approach us and exclaim loudly ‘what happened to you then?!’. Now, this is a question I get a lot, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this is because people expect a funny story: I don’t look ill, so people expect a drunken fall on a crazy night out, or maybe some sort of temporary waterskiing accident. The problem is that I still haven’t found a way to answer this question without making the other person feel awkward. So when I replied ‘haha, long-term illness!’ with a polite little laugh, they looked like they wanted the ground to swallow them whole. ‘Well’ they replied, gingerly patting my arm and trying to salvage the situation, ‘at least you’re still smiling!’. Because obviously, people who are ill aren’t supposed to be smiling or laughing or having a good time. Unless, of course, they’re one of the inspirational sob stories that healthy people use to make themselves feel better. But that’s another issue for another time.
The point is that invisible illness is an ongoing issue that there can never be enough awareness of. Even when visible mobility aids are added into the equation, if you don’t appear to be miserable and suffering, or have an obvious physical impairment, people are inclined to doubt your condition. I hope with everything in me that one day this won’t be the case, and those with chronic illnesses, including those without mobility aids, will be able to sit in reserved disabled seats, or move their legs in their wheelchair, or God forbid, laugh and enjoy their life, without judgment from others. But for now, we need to do all we can to help the healthy population to understand; just because somebody doesn’t appear to be ill, it doesn’t mean they’re not suffering.
Are you an invisible illness sufferer who uses mobility aids? I’d love to hear other people’s views/experiences!
Find out more about my chronic illness story here!